Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte's Web Thoughts
The Unexpected Blessing of a Locked Cabinet

The Unexpected Blessing of a Locked Cabinet

When one drawer opens...
(This is not the cabinet in question, but you have to admit it’s very pretty. Image credit: Vieriu Adrian // Getty)

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When I was 14, I moved in with my father, who lived a few hours away from my mother in Central Texas. Things had been pretty unsafe with my mother for quite a while, to put it mildly, and my father stepped up and gave me a home. And to this day, I’m grateful for that.

But at the time, neither of us were comfortable around each other. Without ever actually addressing it, my father was clearly concerned that I might be gay. And I knew that he was concerned that I might be gay. And he knew that I knew that he was concerned that I might be gay. And for years, we did an awkward dance-of-sorts around each other on this point of unspoken tension.

Now, it’s hard to pinpoint how exactly this suspicion of his came about. Maybe it was because I listened to Mariah Carey all the time. Maybe it was because I had a minor obsession with romantic comedies written by Nora Ephron. Maybe it was the moment I was ecstatic that I had been accepted a year early into my high school’s show choir. Maybe it had something to do with me using my birthday money to purchase fancy air fresheners from Bath & Body Works.

I guess we’ll never know.

My father and I spent my early high school years privately worrying over the same ballpark problem but from very different angles. He was worried, without ever saying so out loud, that he had a gay son – his firstborn, no less. Technically speaking, he was worried over a problem that didn’t exist.

You see, I was only attracted to girls. It’s still the case that I’m only attracted to women. But from an early age, I also wanted to be a woman, which was, as you might imagine, 25 years ago, very confusing for a teenager growing up in Central Texas.

I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what was going on inside me. I didn’t know about terms like “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” and the fact that one has nothing to do with the other. That knowledge and personal clarity would come much later in life. The concept of something like “trans visibility” was not only generally scarce in the country but completely nonexistent in our little corner of America.

The tension between my father and me increased with every month over those years. It was something neither of us were equipped to address, and it hovered over all our interactions, always threatening to explode in our faces if we weren’t careful to avoid it.

Meanwhile, life went on. I was still a teenager, very hormonal and very confused by sex. One day, during the summer, I was home alone and browsing through my father’s DVD collection in the living room, and I noticed there was a cabinet in there that I had never opened, and I quickly realized it was secured with some kinda internal plastic locking mechanism.

It was not a very good plastic locking mechanism. I am not someone blessed with mechanical intelligence, and it took me less than a minute to figure it out. And when I did, I opened the doors of that cabinet to an exceptionally large collection of printed adult materials.

Now, was it wrong of me to break into his private cabinet? Of course. Like anyone else, my father should have had a reasonable expectation of privacy. But also: let’s all acknowledge that hiding his personal treasure trove in the family living room and securing it with a lock that looks like something one might find at the bottom of a cereal box is probably not among the wisest decisions he’s ever made.

[Side note: I feel confident in stating that there probably exists scientific evidence to suggest that every 30 seconds spent browsing a parent’s collection of adult materials will probably cost about a year of therapy down the road.]

At first, I thought I had hit the jackpot. I was astonished by my own luck, as any hormonal teenager might be.

But I quickly found out that nothing in the stash was particularly engaging to me. It was not personally appealing. It was all pretty straightforward erotica for heterosexual males, the details of which I’ll leave to your imagination, but you won’t need any, trust me.

I felt surprised by my own disappointment. Every movie and television show with this exact scenario—horny teenager finds naughty magazine—had portrayed this to be a rare blessing during adolescence.

Yet here I was sitting on many years’ worth of goods, a goldmine of paraphernalia, and yet, it was all underwhelming. It was disappointing. If I wasn’t really into this stuff, did I have any hope of feeling like a man someday? And if not, did I have any hope of earning my father’s approval someday? My brain would fixate on these ridiculous and reductive and painful questions for much, much longer than I care to admit.

But it was only a week later, while I was reading in my room, that my father ordered me into the backyard in a tone that clearly meant I was in trouble. I was a pretty well-behaved kid, so, I kinda knew deep down what this was about. I didn’t really have to guess. My father was strict, and he was very quick to anger. And I knew that in terms of trouble, this was many leaps beyond anything I had ever done wrong. I knew instinctively that I was about to be grounded-for-life.

While walking to the backyard, it did cross my mind how completely unfair it was to be in trouble for discovering a private stash of adult materials that I wasn’t even into. Whatever the punishment was about to be, I wasn’t really getting anything worth my time in exchange for it. I was about to be grounded for something that had only given me an enduring struggle of existential angst. This wasn’t teenage rebellion; this was just very bad planning.

But as my father began talking to me, I noticed something very strange. Yes, he was using quite a bit of profanity, and he was technically chewing my ass over all this. But there was an obvious smirk on his face. He was clearly struggling to suppress a smile. His demeanor was like someone trying their best to be upset and very much falling short.

It was about thirty seconds into this feigned ass chewing, this obvious performance, when I realized he wasn’t upset at all.

He was happy. He was amused. He was relieved. He didn’t have a gay son after all. His problem was gone. It was clear that I was just a weird kid with odd interests. I’d probably grow out of that weirdness. He could live with that.

I was not punished. I just got the ass chewing, and he left it at that.

I should have been happy, too. I had avoided punishment for my worst infraction ever. But it was the first moment in a collection of moments throughout high school in which I realized that I was never going to be able to please my father.

By the time I was 19, there was really no ambiguity. There was no need to speculate on our future. Other families might evolve and grow, but ours would not. Deep down, I knew that.

It took me a long time to recognize that episode as a blessing. It was a gift. If my father had not been so direct in his worldview, I know I would have spent many years, long past childhood, long into adulthood, doing so much to win the coveted approval I would never have received – being someone I’m not just to please him, at the cost of not being who I actually am.

In a very strange way, that interaction in the backyard that summer night saved me so much precious time and gave me so much freedom from the anxiety of attempting to bridge the gulf between us.

I came out seven years ago as a proud trans woman. I live my life with an authenticity that millions upon millions here in our country and around the world cannot. I consider myself fortunate.

I haven’t spoken to my father since I came out. I believe he’s a good person. I’m thankful to him for taking care of me in those remaining years of my childhood. I know that he’s a human being with complexities like anyone else.

And I also know that I have absolutely no responsibility to fix those complications for him or to be someone I’m not in order to please him. I decided that I didn’t want to spend the next few decades constantly defending who I am in his presence, and I consider that one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Thank goodness we both have the freedom to take different paths. I just hope he’s using better locks these days.

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Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte's Web Thoughts
Charlotte Clymer is a writer and LGBTQ advocate. You've probably seen her on Twitter (@cmclymer). This is the podcast version of her blog "Charlotte's Web Thoughts", which you can subscribe to here: